The Virtual and Mobile Workforce

The way we work has changed dramatically over the past few years.  I’m relatively young…turning 27 in a few weeks – yet even I can recall working for previous employers where there was just no way of getting things done without being present in the same location as my team (probably because for my first serious job I was occasionally asked to get coffee, can’t do that virtually…).   Today I think it’s safe to say that a majority of the tasks that an individual needs to complete can be done just as effectively sitting on a beach in Maui as they can sitting in a cubicle.  Furthermore, the traditional work hours of 9-5 are becoming more and more irrelevant.  One of the things that frustrated me the most when going into an office during a particular time was that just because someone told me that I needed to work from 9-5 doesn’t mean I that I could.  Like most people I have ideas and am more productive at various parts of the day; sometimes I get an idea at the gym, sometimes I get an idea in the shower, and sometimes I get an idea at 11pm at night – I don’t think 9-5 and neither do most people.  I also have a very interesting and dynamic workday.  Sometimes I like to go to the gym mid afternoon and sometimes I like to work late and sleep in during the morning.

According to an article from the Sunday Times in 2009, “Working nine to five, what an archaic way to make a living. Recent research by Microsoft shows that 78% of people believe that traditional office hours no longer exist — and some forward-thinking companies are even dispensing with the office itself.”

Current economic conditions are also propelling the virtual workforce initiative forward as it helps reduce overall operating costs.  An article on CNN also highlights the value of virtual meetings and discusses new initiatives by Second Life to service this new virtual workforce.  In my Enterprise 2.0 series on Intuit the organization mentioned that they are actively encouraging virtual work and are in fact now calling it “flexible work spaces.”

Tools such as Box.net, Yammer, Skype, and Gdocs (and probably hundreds of others) all allow you to do everything from host video conferences, to collaborate on documents, update the company on what you are working on, chat in real time (via text, voice, or video), share files – pretty much anything you can think of.  The challenge however is that while the tools are available, their successful use and adoption is ultimately what is going to drive and encourage a virtual or “flexible” workspace.  As Intuit puts it, the tools they have deployed allow employees to work from anywhere while still giving them the feeling that they are part of the team and collaborating – just as if they were sitting next to each other.

Most virtual technology solutions are also accessible via mobile devices, in fact many software solutions build specific apps so that employees can access all of their information via mobile phone.  Mobile phones are pretty much becoming small laptops and you can do almost anything on these devices. Here’s an interesting report by Pew which highlights some interesting internet, broadband, and mobile stats.

The reality is that today we have a very mobile and virtual workforce.

Working virtually is much easier for smaller organizations since there is just less to deal with in terms of adoption, employees, legal, and overall barriers.  Trust in a virtual workforce is also crucial.  If someone wants to work virtually from Maui then the expectations of that employee getting their work done, doesn’t change.  It only takes a few negative experiences to convince a large organization to disallow any type of virtual work.

I think there are a few things that are crucial for a successful virtual workforce.

Trust

As I mentioned above you have to feel confident that the guy in Maui is getting his job done and doing so just as if he were working at the office

Tools

The entire virtual workforce movement is supported by a host of technology platforms that all cater to a specific need.  For example Box.net is great at sharing files and information with employees.  Skype is perfect for 1-on-1 video or voice meetings.  Yammer is great at connecting an entire organization and updating employees on who is working on what.  The challenge around tools is making sure that they can be integrated with one another when relevant, that employees know which tools they have access to and how to use them.

Accountability/productivity

Employees have to remain accountable for the work that they need to do and productivity cannot suffer in the process.  Of course if an organization notices that accountability and productivity begins to decrease then you can kiss virtual work goodbye.

Governance

There need to be some rules and guidelines in place for this.  For example if a client proposal is due tomorrow is it still ok for the team to work from home?  Should employees be allowed to take conference calls from home?  Simple examples I know, but there need to be some sort of guidelines in place at least initially to make this work.

Security

This is a big one.  Making sure that information employees access from a remote location is secure and private is a huge concern for organizations.  Working from an office space, the organization has much more control over access so somehow this needs to be negotiated with IT.

Here’s a great post from Telecommuter on best practices for telecommuting for fortune 500 companies that I also recommend you read. For another interesting read check out Productivity 2.0: How the New Rules of Work Are Changing the Game.  The point is that we are moving towards a mobile and virtual work force and we now have the tools and technologies in place to support that, but as we learned tools and technology only get you so far without having a solid strategy in place for making everything work.

Here’s a great example of a large organization (Cognizant) manages and encourages virtual work, thanks to Prem Kumar for the tip!

Ask yourself if your organization can be just as productive if it allowed for a virtual workforce and let me know what you think in the comments.

(This article is reprinted with permission from the blog Jacob Morgan: Social Media Globetrotter.)

Jacob Morgan

Jacob Morgan is the Principal of Chess Media Group, a social business consultancy that focused on Enterprise 2.0, Social CRM, and Social Media strategies for mid and enterprise size clients. Jacob also authors a popular blog on Social CRM and Enterprise 2.0 and you can connect with him on twitter @JacobM.